England again call on Ben Stokes in their hour of need – this time as captain

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Ben Stokes has been nominated as the man to take England’s red-ball team forward  (AP)
Ben Stokes has been nominated as the man to take England’s red-ball team forward (AP)

In the end, it was always going to be one man. On Thursday, Ben Stokes was officially confirmed as England’s new Test captain.

The reasons are many, not all of them compelling, not all of them complimentary. Each soul invested in English cricket, be they employer, employee, admirer or voyeur will take their pick from the selection of motivations: that he was the most qualified, that there were no other options, that he is a natural leader, that a group devoid of direction need someone who, for better and worse, does not take a step back.

Whether by principle or circumstance, the 81st leader of a country’s revered vessel has been appointed at its most turbulent time. And it is hard not to look at the choice of Stokes – yes, even with the negative caveats – as exactly the type you would align behind when you are getting it from all parts. The feistiest, the strongest, the alpha. The fighter, if that’s not too on the chin.

Stokes come a long way from that infamous night in Bristol in 2017. So long, in fact, that the redemption story has already been read and re-printed. If anything, what we have here is a new book altogether. One many who have grown with the man did not have in their storyboard. Even teammates doubted he would get the gig after Joe Root stepped down earlier this month. He was already the all-action all-rounder that was promised, already the leader in the dressing room and out in the middle. He didn’t need the title to go with it. Now he does, one imagines the documentary being made of him will have a quick edit before its release this summer.

On that last bit, a chain has been broken in English cricket, linked through Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Root. All three were dubbed FECs (future England captain) whereas Stokes, even as a kid, had an unrefined Kiwi-Cumbrian cheek that those in the system assumed would count against him. And here the game lies, wondering if that’s what they missed and, now, exactly what they need.

His teammates need him most. They have lost 11 of 20 Tests since the start of 2021, winning just one of seven series in that time – none of the last six – and are dreadfully out of sorts. It is a malaise that will take more than a new captain and whoever wins the race to be head coach to solve. But the announcement of Stokes will provide a lift to morale, standards and, perhaps most important of all, belief.

For the longest time, Stokes has been an England cricketer many of his peers have both admired and aspired to be. He sets the standard in training, whether skills or fitness, and has pulled the team out of the fire on so many occasions that the phrase “you’ve always got a chance with Stokesy” needs to be carved into the dressing room wall instead of being just press conference filler.

His words to Jofra Archer before the fast bowler took England to glory in the Super Over of the 2019 World Cup – “what you do here will not define you” – is already folklore. Others have spoken privately about being emboldened by his qualities as a hype man, or even as back-up when opponents are at their most vociferous. He is regarded as one of the best to bat with not just because of his ability but how he will take it upon himself to absorb the heat of the situation – whether hostile spells or harsh words - if he feels the person at the other end is struggling, without seeming like he is coddling them. In a world of uncapped bravado, it is the kind of sensitivity that means a lot.

When the midnight curfew was installed following a chain of events set off by the Bristol incident, Stokes, feeling responsible for impinging on everyone else’s social time, made it is his job to ensure revelry, even simply within a team room at a hotel, was enjoyable for all. Not just teammates, but family and friends of friends.

Ben Stokes has dragged England out of many a mire during his career (AFP via Getty Images)
Ben Stokes has dragged England out of many a mire during his career (AFP via Getty Images)

The flip side is arguably the bit that matters. He is unafraid of holding people to account, or grabbing the nettle on matters that, for all Root’s personality, he couldn’t do convincingly. Throughout the many sorry debriefs in Australia during the recent 4-0 Ashes defeat, Stokes, as vice captain, was not afraid to speak frankly, at times turning the air blue with his frustration but following that up with solutions rather than simply letting curse words hang in the air. He’d follow up with actions in whatever naughty boy nets were put on the next day.

Most impressive of all was how he conducted himself ahead of his first dabble with the captaincy in 2020 for the first Test of a series with West Indies when Root was on paternity leave. It was decided that Stuart Broad would sit out and, given he was only a caretaker for the match, the decision was going to be relayed to Broad by someone else. Stokes, however, felt it was only right that the news came from him, visiting Broad’s hotel room to talk him through the decision. It was a moment that spoke of how Stokes is not afraid of awkward conversations, particularly with those in seniority. The way he has clapped back at Broad and James Anderson on the field at times speaks of this and is no doubt one of the reasons why he has no qualms in reintroducing them to the Test side. He knows he needs them and he knows he can manage them.

Quite how he manages himself remains to be seen. The curse of the brilliant all-rounder is to think he must always have the answers, and given he already assumes so much weight for the team, the fear is he’ll find another saddlebag hook on to himself and fill. But it’s hard to take seriously the idea he will be another Ian Botham or an Andrew Flintoff. He’s wired differently to both, their only common ground as a trio being talismans who have occasionally gone astray. The three, we should remember, are all completely different human beings in completely different eras of the game. Stokes may make similar on-field mistakes, but that’s just captaincy.

Ben Stokes will follow in Joe Root’s footsteps as England skipper but be a different style of captain (Action Images via Reuters)
Ben Stokes will follow in Joe Root’s footsteps as England skipper but be a different style of captain (Action Images via Reuters)

It will certainly be interesting to see how his other commitments now stack up against this one. White ball cricket, the Indian Premier League, his digital influencer 4Cast brand (founded with Broad and Archer), the side hustles that come with being a global brand unto himself and even the most simplistic aspect of being someone who has maintained a consistent sense of identity in a sea of homogeny. All of these will be tested by England Test captaincy, even when some of them shouldn’t. There will be compromises he will have to make and each concession, in its own way, will take a little gloss off the job.

It is, though, a job he very much wants, and to do exceptionally. Perhaps not one he coveted, perhaps not one he’d ever think would come his way. But one he will approach this with a strong sense of duty, as someone of immense loyalty and pride. Its importance will not need to be impressed on him, nor will it crush him.

In the last few years when England have been on the ropes, the first call has been to Stokes. Whether Lord’s, Headingley or the countless times in the field when the ball is old, spirits are low and the opposition are preparing to march ahead, Stokes has been the one to pull or at least attempt to pull his team back from the brink. It feels only right for him to be the one to try and do the same for English cricket.

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